FBI terrorism task force agents on surveillance mission

A Former FBI Agent Talks About Handling Informants

February 18, 2016 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

Since 2009, paid FBI informants have played a central role in nearly 50% of all domestic terrorism cases. Informants, who can earn up to $100,000 per case, are instructed to build relationships with persons of interest. The film (T)ERROR [premiering on PBS February 22; check local listings] focuses on one of these informants, operating under the pseudonym Shariff, who for decades has worked on counterterrorism cases in Pittsburgh. Over the years Shariff’s efforts have contributed to the foiling of several terrorist plots, but his last assignment, as documented in the film, becomes increasingly precarious when Shariff entertains second thoughts about the ethics of his work, inviting repercussions from his FBI handlers. 

(T)ERROR was shot without the knowledge of the FBI, and we only witness the bureau’s handling of Shariff from the informant’s perspective, mostly via cryptic text messages. I was curious to find out whether Shariff’s treatment was conventional, so I tracked down an FBI agent who’d worked with informants before. It wasn’t easy to find a handler who’d speak on the record, and the person who did finally agree to chat about it was someone who’d retired from the Bureau awhile back.

Rick Smith, now a private security expert in San Francisco, ended up being the perfect source. The knowledgeable former agent later became Media Representative for the San Francisco Division of the FBI, where he was responsible for handling all FBI matters, including the Polly Klaas kidnapping case and the UNABOM investigation. In 1995, he was promoted to Supervisor of the Russian Counterintelligence Squad.

While Smith said he found the story presented in (T)ERROR very interesting, we talked about broader topics touched on in the film. Here are highlights from our chat.

“You gotta make sure when you’re dealing with [informants] that you’re playing them, they’re not playing you.”Could you talk about your own experience working with and handling informants? How were they recruited?

I worked in foreign counterintelligence during the Cold War — Soviet and KGB counterintelligence. You had to have sources. Developing them was the most important thing you did. Everybody who works in the FBI has to have sources or you’re not doing your job. It’s a little more complicated and different today, because about 35% of the agents today work specifically on terrorism and it’s more difficult to develop those types of sources, because of the cultural differences.  

So we tried to develop informants. Now this was a different era, it was against the Soviets and it was all about the intelligence officers and how we targeted them, how we tried to learn who was who, what they were doing, who they were in contact with. And then we would interject ourselves, try to contact those same people. Making sure they cooperated with us and not with them. And make sure that there weren’t any spies out there that were spying on the United States.

So what are the differences between that Cold War era and now when it comes to the role of informants?

There are major differences. When I retired from FBI, it was something like 5-10% of entire FBI agents then were working for counterterrorism; now it’s more like 30-35%. That’s a tremendous difference. There are different squads in each division, there are 56 field offices, and each field office has a counterterrorism unit.

shariff the informer from (T)ERROR in car looking at rear view mirror
“Shariff” prowls the streets of Pittsburgh

It used to be 50% criminal, 50% counterintelligence. Now it’s much more about counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

As a handler, do you feel a responsibility for the safety of the informant?

Oh very much, there’s a human component to it. You don’t want the informants to have a problem.

And we’re talking about two different things here, by the way. Counterintelligence vs. counterterrorism. There’s a very important distinction. Counterintelligence is within the intelligence service and the work is less dangerous. Counterterrorism: we’re talking about recruiting people who know about a bomb going off. So it’s totally different, and you’re very concerned about someone’s safety in those cases.

In counterintelligence, meanwhile, you’re trying to recruit someone and put them in the intelligence service, where they are working for you. Basically a double agent, a recruitment in place.

You’re trying to do that in counterterrorism as well. But it’s different, and more difficult today. It’s more diffuse, there are more organizations, it’s not all centralized.  

So regarding (T)ERROR, what were your impressions of the FBI’s handling of Shariff versus other cases you’re more familiar with?

Well, first of all, it seemed because of Shariff’s past history, in the Black Panthers, he was jammed up [and the FBI was aware of him], so he made a deal. That’s often how you get to [informants]. This is not a game of checkers, you’re talking about trying to convince someone to cooperate with you, to work with you for the good of the case, for the objective, so how you do it — unless they violate a law, obviously — is a guy is fair game if he’s vulnerable, if he’s committed a crime and looking at 20 years as opposed to six months if he’ll cooperate with the FBI. That’s his decision. But you’ve got to convince him that he’s doing the right thing for the FBI.

So it’s fundamentally the same no matter what the case though there are shades of difference. “It’s easy to have that relationship but there’s a difference and you’ve got to be able to break that off — it can’t become personal.” 

And did you think Shariff was an effective informant, at least for a time? I know at this point in his career he seems to want out, would you have trusted him?

He’s somebody that had some access, somebody that had to cooperate and was paid for his work, and that’s all right, there’s nothing wrong with that. Here’s the deal, you gotta make sure when you’re dealing with [informants] that you’re playing them, they’re not playing you. That’s the whole deal. You gotta have enough experience to know what you’re doing. Because everybody has a certain amount of bullshit, everybody’s got the ability to communicate to convince people that they’re right. So in the field of informants you better be getting more than you give, otherwise you’re not doing your job.

Of course, it doesn’t always go according to plan.

How do you sever ties with an informant?

Sometimes they’re no longer useful in a case, or sometimes they’ve fulfilled the goal, accomplished what you wanted to accomplish, and you no longer need to pay them. I mean, a lot of these guys make a lot of money. So once their access is over and they’re no longer needed on a job, there’s no reason to pay them any more. And you can’t look at them as personal friends. It’s easy to have that relationship, but there’s a difference and you’ve got to be able to break that off — it can’t become personal.

Do most informants transition back to a regular life afterwards?

Yeah, though it would depend on what they did.  If you’re talking about someone who infiltrated Al Qaeda, that’s a whole different deal there – if a person risked their life for the United States, you have to be mindful of that, you owe them something for doing that, not just money. Because anybody becomes emotionally involved you’ve got to separate.

If you’re comfortable saying, is there anything you think today’s FBI could be doing differently, or more of, or less of, when it comes to war on terror?

Yeah, there’s at least one thing, and I’ve talked to some current agents about this. There’s some nuance here, but one of the problems is it takes tremendous amount of manpower to conduct a surveillance. It might take 20-30 agents for a week, rotating shifts, using five or six vehicles. It exhausts manpower from every other case. So you’ve got maybe 10% of the office working one case for a couple of weeks  And one idea is to have a surveillance component. There are two types of surveillance groups, one group can carry a gun and one group can’t — agents can carry and arrest people, conduct searches, and the other group are not officially agents yet. So it’d be nice to have a bigger field, a bigger surveillance component, and maybe that can be done by recruiting just for that one function. But it’s difficult.  You’re gonna hear different arguments. But you just can’t cover all these cases at the same time in all these offices without sucking up the manpower.

You got some agents that work just in the office handling administrative stuff, then you have agents that are out in the field talking to the sources, running around talking to these people, and then you have technical surveillance. And if you’re on surveillance you can’t do anything else, you’re just stuck there, maybe 10 hours a day for 2-3 weeks. So that’s one of their problems today.

So do you think the public has some misperceptions about what the FBI does that you’d want to correct? Do you think because certain aspects of the job are naturally top secret, as well as how much of people’s perception of FBI comes from TV, that people have the wrong idea?

Oh, tremendous misperception. People have no idea what actually goes on in there. I mean, some of the substance of what they talk about is accurate, in other words, counterterrorism, what it’s about, what the FBI is trying to do there today, but the culture is often misrepresented. The danger and the excitement is not like it is every day.  I mean look, most agents are with the FBI because they think it’s the right thing to do and they love their country. (That’s not misrepresented on shows that much, mind you, just wanted to mention it.)

Have you ever seen a fictionalized film or TV program, or book, that captured the FBI life and experience accurately?

That’s a tough question. Actually, John le Carré, who worked for MI6 (the British CIA) wrote a bunch of books on that type of story [Cold War spycraft] and he knew the game very well, and was able to write. So those books were great, even if not about the FBI per se. They were very accurate. Some stuff is just so sensationalized that it becomes wacky. Everybody shooting everybody else, it doesn’t happen like that. Oh, you know what else is pretty accurate? [The Showtime series] Homeland.


Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.